Are your COVID return-to-work communications confusing staff? Take a simpler approach

Confusing, multiphase plans don't help anyone, especially in times of uncertainty. Your staff wants to know where to be when, so make it easier for them.

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Image: GingerKitten/Shutterstock

Just as it seemed the world was reopening and COVID-19 would soon become what the specialists call a nuisance virus, COVID has returned to the headlines with concerns about the delta variant. We've faced this type of COVID-related doom and gloom before, with concerned talk about the so-called U.K. variant, Brazil variant, and others that ultimately turned out to be of little concern in the U.S. Still, if nothing else, delta will turn up the dial on stress brought about by uncertainty.

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Like most of us, I have no basis upon which to assess the potential impact of delta, but rather than focusing on something over which we have no control. It's worth focusing on the areas that we can control in light of the potential threat. One of those areas is how you communicate the return to work or a transition back to virtual work. How, when and what you share will significantly impact the stress of your teams and the broader organization, and doing it well could make all the difference in maintaining morale and productivity irrespective of what happens with delta and any other future COVID variants.

Avoid the urge to over-engineer

Too many of the back-to-work plans I've seen vastly overcomplicate what should be a relatively straightforward process. I've seen eight-phase plans, replete with codenames and impenetrable jargon like Modified-Hybrid working models and Alternative Teaming Arrangements. When employees get a breathless email on Monday announcing that select locations are entering Phase 4.5A, while others will remain on Phase 3-Prime, employees quickly lose interest in spending ten minutes trying to determine what this means to them and end up stewing in their own uncertainty rather than thoughtfully getting down to business irrespective of the location.

The best approaches to communicating COVID-related work arrangements are likely the simplest and provide discretion to individual teams, working groups, and geographies. For example, the concept of Defense Condition or DEFCON employed by the U.S. military during the Cold War is instructive for its simplicity and flexibility. The DEFCON could range from Condition 1, which represented the outbreak of nuclear war, to Condition 5, representing a normal state of readiness.

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In addition to standard activities and policies that everyone at a specific DEFCON level would activate, different branches, units or physical military bases could set policies for their individual unit. Furthermore, each could be on a different DEFCON level, and each individual knew what a particular DEFCON meant for them. Rather than requiring confusing communications accompanied by a 14-page PowerPoint, every service member knew the DEFCON of their unit and what was expected of them at that level.

A simple red, yellow and green Working Condition might suffice for your organization, with green being business as usual, and red denoting special remote working circumstances defined by the individual team or business unit. IT can play a key role in this process by providing a central status board indicating the Working Condition for every location or team, as well as designating who is empowered to set the Working Condition for their unit. IT can also lead in defining policies and procedure templates for each Working Condition, especially since IT departments often have a variety of workers ranging from critical location-focused staff to knowledge workers and executives.

Certainty reduces stress

The power of a Working Condition concept is that it provides a self-service means for employees to get answers to whatever work location and process questions they need. If there's a single place to find your team's working condition and pre-arranged policies on what a working condition means to an individual, you'll reduce the uncertainty of wondering when, where and how an employee will be working based on the whims of an unpredictable virus. While we can't control biology, we can use thoughtful, simplified tools like Working Condition to make life easier and less stressful for our teams.

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...